Written by Meg McKinlay
Illustrated by Karen Blair
Walker Books Australia, 2022
Ella’s house is full of things . . . useless things! At least that’s what she and Dad think. But when they decide to have a clean-up day, something very curious happens. Maybe what is useless to them is treasure to someone else?
A heartwarming picture book about community, sustainability and how one person’s rubbish can be another’s treasure.
What Readers Are Saying:
“Karen Blair’s watercolour and pencil illustrations mesmerise with their personable pastel hues and exuberant whimsy … Family dynamics, diversity, activity and a sense of unity all come together in this heartwarming, energetic and topical story of sharing and environmental preservation … a treasure.”
–Romi Sharp, Books+Publishing
“I loved that this story focuses on both individual action and the wider benefits to community and environment, without being too obvious about the power of diverting ‘rubbish’ away from landfill. It is ultimately about the shift in mindset towards ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’. The whimsical yellows, pinks and purples of Blair’s watercolour illustrations contribute a loving homeliness that beautifully culminates in a delightful patchwork project. This might just be my favourite picture book of the year so far!”
– Clare Millar, Readings
Classroom Resources for Primary Levels (Walker Books)
Classroom Resources for Lower Primary (Scholastic)
StoryTime Kit: Entertaining activities for Lower Primary (Walker Books; includes activities and printables for Ella as well as three other Walker titles).
Behind the Story
Ella and the Useless Day is another book that has had a long and winding path to publication. I wrote the first version all the way back in 2005. I was not yet published as a children’s writer at that time and from around 2002 to 2006 I drafted about twenty picture book manuscripts and fired them off to unsuspecting publishers all over the place, without success. I didn’t know it at the time but I was in the middle of a learning process, trying to work out what I wanted to write and how, playing around with voice and subject matter, throwing all sorts of things at the wall to see what might stick.
Most of those early efforts will never see the light of day, but there were a few that had potential, that I returned to years later with fresh eyes and thought, Hmm, I think I could do something with this.
One of those was How to Make a Bird, which went on to be published in 2021. Ella and the Useless Day was another. But while I pulled both manuscripts out of the metaphorical bottom drawer at the same time, their paths diverged entirely from that point. While Bird remained virtually unchanged, needing only the tiniest of tweaks to be submission- and then publication-ready, Ella was a very different proposition. While it had good bones, the kernel of an idea that still seemed promising to me, the story needed work.
In 2005, I had set out to write a story about reusing and repurposing – what has since come to be known as ‘up-cycling’ – and I had done so with my own childhood experiences in mind. I grew up in the 1970s, as a very free-range child, and have memories of sneaking under the wire at the local tip to fossick through the piles of discards, scavenging things that seemed interesting or possibly useful or just intriguingly weird. With that in mind, the early version of Ella was about a father-daughter trip to the tip, where, while they discard all their ‘useless’ items, the gatekeeper’s daughter is on the other side of the pile, purloining things for herself. At the end, the view pulls back to show the gatekeeper’s on-site house and yard, filled with all kinds of weird and wonderful things they’ve made from the ‘rubbish’.
I liked this. But I didn’t love it. It felt like it was trying to be something but not quite achieving it somehow. That probably should have stopped me sending it out back in 2005, but it didn’t. It was most likely, however, the reason I didn’t persist with it, tucking it away in that metaphorical drawer after only a relatively small handful of rejections.
When I pulled it out some fourteen years later, all sorts of things had changed. I had changed, for one thing. I was a stronger writer, with a clearer grasp of narrative, and I could see immediately that the structure needed work. But there was something bigger, too: society had changed, the zeitgeist had shifted. Sustainability imperatives were more urgent, more mainstream. There were ‘freecycle’ email lists and hyper-local “Buy Nothing” groups where people made connections to pass on items they no longer wanted, to those who did. I myself had been a member of such networks for years at that point, and had delighted in being part of this circular economy.
There was also something even bigger than that, or at least more personal, more immediate. Which was that at that time, together with my siblings, I was engaged in the difficult but also quietly joyful task of cleaning out our childhood home of some fifty years of accumulated ‘stuff’.
In the throes of that process, which I write about in more detail here, it became so clear what Ella needed, what it needed to be: not a story about using things from the tip, but about preventing them from getting there in the first place. And not a character who does this quietly, her actions seen only by Ella and the reader, but a community of people who do it together, learning and sharing and making connections.
Ah. Now I loved this story. Now I was ready to send it off again. And then, Karen Blair agreed to illustrate it, not only bringing my characters to life in the most vibrant, endearing way, but also incorporating glorious fabric textures and stitching and all kinds of genius elements that added layers and depth and many other things I could scarcely have dreamed of. (Oh, and ducks. Always ducks.)
And so, seventeen years after her beginnings, Ella and the Useless Day is here. I hope you love her as much as I do.